One day this month when a sports car broke down on a Wednesday night, another car crashed into it and fled on the Capital Beltway. Christian Guerreiro died at the scene. About 370 miles away in North Carolina, police announced they were offering $25,000 to anyone who could identify the driver who killed bicyclist Jeffrey Masingill. Almost 2,500 miles from there, Scott Dooley said he was the driver who killed a 74-year-old woman with his Pontiac.
All three events fell on the same day — Aug. 1 — and the common thread was a hit-and-run driver. Guerreiro, 21, was killed by one. Police in Monroe, N.C., were in search of one. In Orange County, Calif., Dooley, 46, pleaded guilty as one.
Hit-and-run fatalities occur, on average, almost six times a day in the United States — and the number has increased in recent years. In 2015, Americans crashed and fled more than 2,000 times every day. More people are skipping out on the consequences of their crashes than at any time since federal authorities first separated the statistic in 1975.
Among the more stunning cases: numerous incidents where a driver struck someone — usually a pedestrian or bicyclist — and kept driving, even though the person was embedded in the windshield or elsewhere on the car.
A Wisconsin cyclist who came through the windshield said he turned to the driver, Jamie Hang, and greeted him with “Hello, I’m the guy you hit on the bicycle.” Steven Gove, who had been delivering newspapers in 2014 when he was struck, said Hang didn’t notice him until he stopped in front of his own house.
“He looked at me and said ‘Who are you? What are you doing in the car?’” Gove said.
Hang was sentenced to three months in jail and lost his license for driving under the influence.
“The brain can do really extreme things,” said psychologist Emanuel Robinson, who leads a study group at Westat’s Center for Transportation, Technology and Safety Research. “Anytime we get into an accident we get emotional.”
Most people remain at the scene, some of them so filled with adrenaline that they argue over who is to blame.
“The other side of that is people who just want out of here,” Robinson said. “ ‘I’m scared, I don’t know what to do with this, I’m just going to leave.’ We also get in a situation where people are really good at rationalizing. Where people say, ‘It was nothing, just a little scrape, I don’t need to stay around.’ ”
Robinson pointed to a pair of European studies that reflected his thinking.
They portray the majority of hit-and-run drivers as men under the age of 25. Both studies — one by the Belgian Road Safety Institute that includes 10 European countries and the other by the University of Leicester that focuses on Britain — offer the caveat that their findings reflect only hit-and-run drivers who were caught or turned themselves in.
The Belgian report said 42 percent of the 853 offenders in its study were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It said, “The bigger the consequences, the stronger the fear . . . especially when the consequences of the act are enormous.”
Leicester studied 53 people convicted of hit-and-run crashes, finding that 21 of them panicked into “flight mode,” seven were worried about their drinking, eight claimed they had no knowledge of the crash and 13 thought it was too trivial to report. Some worried their insurance would go up, and others feared police would discover unrelated crimes.
“For a small group of offenders, it’s not fear or the overwhelming flood of mixed emotion that leads to an inappropriate decision, but there is more of a lack of emotion,” the Belgian report says, concluding that these people lack “good moral judgment.”
The Belgian study says, “It’s a split-second decision . . . That’s why more hit-and-run accidents take place in poor lighting conditions, on more deserted roads or when no one else is around.” One of the most frequent stories police hear is, “I thought I hit a deer.”
“Some of those people may just be saying that because they know it’s better to say that than to say the truth,” Robinson said. “But given what the human mind can do, it would not surprise me that a good portion of those people fooled themselves into thinking they hit a deer.”
Then there are those who drive on — even with a person embedded in their car.
“This person’s on the windshield and the [driver] just had a psychological break where they couldn’t deal with the reality,” Robinson said. “They literally blocked that part out, as if they couldn’t see it.”
• A woman in Fort Worth struck a homeless man in 2002 and drove inside her garage with his head coming through her windshield. Police said it took two or three days for Gregory Biggs to bleed to death. Chante Mallard, then 25, told police she went into the garage periodically, apologizing to him but doing nothing to help. After he died, she enlisted a friend to help dump his body in a park. She was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
• Craig Camlin, 53, was riding his bike in Fort Lauderdale almost five years ago when Axel Esteban Inostroza’s black Ford Mustang hit him from behind. Camlin hit the windshield, rolled over the roof and became jammed behind the rear window and the car’s spoiler. Police said Inostroza, then 27, was aware of the crash, drove about two miles farther, hid the injured Camlin in the woods behind a trash bin and went home to take a nap. Camlin, who was paralyzed by the crash, died about two months later from an inflection. Inostroza, who admitted he had been drinking, is scheduled to be released from prison in 2043.
• James John Onak, then 45, told deputies who stopped him in Houston seven years ago for having his headlights off at night that he hadn’t realized there was a dead body in his passenger seat. This, police said, despite a shattered windshield and blood on Onak’s face. Police said they found a leg of the dead man, Fadel Steadman, 32, about three miles down the road. Onak was jailed on felony charges and driving under the influence.
• Steven Warrichaiet, then 40, said he was intoxicated more than 10 years ago when he struck two people in Green Bay, Wis., driving a mile home with one of them in his windshield. Police said Warrichaiet fell asleep on the couch, awoke hours later and found the body in his garage. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
• Two years ago in Oceanside, Calif., Esteysi Sanchez, then 29, told police she’d had several drinks before she struck Jack Tenhulzen, 69, as he walked on the sidewalk. The impact was so forceful that his head stuck in the windshield while a severed leg crashed through the rear window. As she approached her home, Sanchez abandoned the car, walked home and changed her clothes. She was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.